You can follow the herd on the well-travelled path towards all of Orlando’s acclaimed attractions, or you can blend in like a native and visit the lesser-known sites of the City Beautiful. Take a look at our insider’s guide to Orlando and see the city like a local.
With a slew of sprawling theme parks dotting the Central Florida landscape, it can be tough to dedicate a day to exploring Orlando’s downtown, but the effort will be well rewarded. This walkable urban corridor is packed with daytime diversions and a bevy of evening exploits sprinkled throughout the nightlife districts, including Church Street and Thornton Park.
At its centre, the 43-acre Lake Eola Park serves as a gleaming green space where giant permanent art installations circle the water and regal swans paddle around the impressive Lake Eola Fountain. At night, the fountain displays an LED light and water show set to music, which plays around the park. Consider getting a closer look by snagging a swan paddleboat, which are rented daily for $15 per half hour from the dock adjacent to Relax Grill. Hours are extended from Wednesday to Saturday, when the swan boats are permitted on the lake until 10pm.
Downtown is also home to a thriving art scene known as the Downtown Arts District, with a collection of 21 galleries dotting the city centre and tucked inside the CityArts Factory and Church Street Exchange building. The district is best explored during the Third Thursday Gallery Hop, a monthly art party where galleries, restaurants and boutiques spotlight local artists and tempt revellers with nibbles and drink specials as well as musicians and street artists.
Come hungry because downtown Orlando offers a vibrant collection of eateries, from Spanish tapas to farm-to-table American to modern French cuisine. A good area to visit is Church Street, a dining and nightlife district that has seen a remarkable revival of late. With the Amway Center, the colossal sports and concert venue, set at the district’s west end, the area is always buzzing with visitors out to enjoy tapas and live flamenco at Ceviche, campy and colourful fun at Hamburger Mary’s, upscale steaks and martinis at Kres, or locally sourced fare at The Rusty Spoon.
As the sun goes down, Church Street becomes a destination for cocktails and dancing thanks to nearly a dozen bars and pubs, including ONE80 GREY GOOSE where you can sip decadent cocktails while enjoying one of the best rooftop views of the city’s evening skyline.
Nearby Hanson’s Shoe Repair, an Orange Avenue speakeasy, is also worthy of a visit.
Offering craft cocktails and rooftop views, guests use a secret password to enter the secret space. Call 407-476-9446 and leave the time, date and number of people in your party. Then simply await the text that will tell you the day’s secret password.
Finally, theatre lovers will want to see what’s showing at Mad Cow, a professional theatre group presenting musicals and plays at an intimate live theatre venue at 54 West Church Street. In addition, SAK Comedy Lab, located in the CityArts Factory, features zany live sketch comedy shows most nights a week.
Orlando’s Dining Scene
While it may be tempting to stick to the tourist zones for dinner, consider veering off into lesser-known territories loved by locals. The current favourite in the downtown area is The Smiling Bison, a no-frills eatery with gourmet fare that sits in stark contrast to the restaurant’s shabby exterior. Located about a mile from Fashion Square Mall, the restaurant features a local-sourced and carnivorous menu that changes daily based on the whimsy of Chef Josh Oakley. Live music most nights rounds out the lunch and dinner splendour.
Nearby, Kabooki Sushi is wowing sushi lovers with its incredibly creative offerings that are miles apart from standard sashimi and sushi rolls. Chef and owner Henry Moso takes quite a departure from Japanese cuisine by blending flavours from many Asian cuisines””including some from his homeland, Laos””to create fusion dishes that make dining here a gourmet adventure from appetizer to dessert.
Strand, a retro diner meets bistro eatery in Orlando Mills 50 District, is whipping up made-from-scratch comfort food bolstered by seasonal fare. Txokos Basque Kitchen has brought the cuisine of Spain’s Basque region to East End Market, the local food hub that opened late 2013 in the Audubon Park District. Here you’ll find meaty small plates (pintxos) and entrees (platos) that invite diners to veer away form the usual Spanish staples.
A few miles north of Orlando’s main downtown core, you’ll find an artsy and eclectic shopping and dining hub known as Ivanhoe Village. Here you’ll find a cache collection of antique homewares and vintage clothing and furniture shops along Orange Avenue and Virginia Drive, the main commercial streets of the area.
Visitors can easily wander along Orange Avenue, where they will find local spots such as White Wolf Café (great for breakfast), Twisted Bliss (a colourful shop serving an ice cream, Italian ice and gelati blend) and Washburn Imports, an exotic furniture store that in the evenings transforms into Imperial Wine and Beer Garden, a clandestine watering hole ideal for a relaxed evening out.
With more than 170 golf courses to choose from in the Orlando area, your toughest job is picking which ones to conquer. A slew of legendary golfers have left their mark on the area by designing championship courses that make Orlando a true golfer’s paradise.
That list includes Bay Hill Club & Lodge where Arnold Palmer hosts his annual Arnold Palmer Invitational. While regular play is limited to members and overnight guests of the 70-room lodge, the challenging course has hosted PGA greats such as Tiger Woods and is considered one of the best golf courses in Florida.
Reunion Resort offers three separate courses, each designed by a different golf legend. There is a Tom Watson course, an Arnold Palmer, and a Jack Nicklaus course, as well as instruction available at the Annika Sorenstam Golf Academy
Orlando Museum of Art
It’s been nearly 100 years since the Orlando Museum of Art, known locally as OMA, opened with a mission to be the leading cultural institution in the region. Decades later, the space still serves as one the area’s most beloved art spaces thanks to a bevy of creatively curated permanent and travelling exhibits, as well as unique programming designed to widen the appeal of art in Orlando.
While OMA is open six days a week (closed Mondays) the best time to visit is during the 1st Thursdays event, an art party sporting a monthly theme and showcasing local artists. From 6pm – 9pm on the first Thursday of each month, OMA loosens its collar slightly with the help of live music, cash bars and small bites from area restaurants. Admission to 1st Thursdays is free for Museum Members, $10 for non-members, and includes access to the Museum’s featured exhibitions.
Thrill seekers will find a sundrenched paradise just an hour from Orlando where a 23-mile stretch of sandy beach serves as a beloved holiday spot for millions. Daytona Beach might be known for its wild and raucous vibe but it’s also an adventure destination thanks to an array of adrenaline inducing diversions.
Best known is the Daytona International Speedway, home to the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Here ride-along and hands-on driving experiences let race enthusiasts enjoy the rush of winning the Daytona 500 in a speeding NASCAR that peels along the 2.5-mile track.
At the Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier, daredevils can surmount the high-speed, ocean view Sand Blaster roller coaster or head out onto the water to parasail 600 – 1,200 feet above the beach.
Finally, ZoomAir Adventure Park, a treetop course with more than 30 aerial obstacles (including eight zip lines), will both challenge and delight.
The meals on wheels trend has swept into Orlando where entrepreneurial epicureans are rolling out gourmet meals at dozens of weekly and monthly food truck events across Central Florida. At the crux of the movement stands Orlando’s Food Truck Bazaar, the organizing force behind dozens of events and the reason why Orlando’s food truck scene has blossomed in recent years.
But the credit also goes to our innovative food truckers who’ve garnered loyal followers both on and offline. That list includes the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck, which is consistently named Orlando’s best food truck. This retro-styled bakery on wheels takes its creatively crafted cakes across the city and wows with flavours such as s’mores, root beer, and new flavours voted by the truck’s thousands of social media fans on Facebook.
The list of Orlando’s food trucks now reaches close to 100. Trying out at least a few of them is a must for any Orlando visitor.
Header image: Downtown Orlando © Visit Orlando
Are you an Orlando local? What would you put on your insider’s guide to Orlando? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Kristen Manieri